Spring break grinds to a halt, tourism promotions ‘stand down’

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People appear to maintain distance March 19 on the beach in Bradenton Beach. Islander Photo: Ryan Paice

Tourism on Anna Maria Island took a shot to the gut this past week.

And the weeks and month ahead will be challenging, according to most in the industry, as the focus shifted from high season to virus losses.

Manatee Public Beach in Holmes Beach and Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach were crowded March 16.

But, by week’s end, the public beaches — at least the public parking lots — were closed. People were allowed on the beaches on AMI as law enforcement maintained a presence to limit crowds and social distancing.

The closure followed Hillsborough and Pinellas orders and similar measures were coordinated with Sarasota, seeking to temper spring break celebrations.

Barbara Baker, general manager of Anna Maria Island Resorts, which manages Tortuga Beach Resort, 1325 Gulf Drive N. and Tradewinds Beach Resorts, 1603 Gulf Drive N., both in Bradenton Beach, said the company had “a large amount of cancellations” before the beach closings.

“We are dealing with them on a case-by-case basis,” Baker told The Islander March 19. “We are refunding some. Some we are putting on account. We have a lot of visitors who return every year and have already booked for 2021.”

Baker said the policy is fluid — changing almost “daily.”

“The one thing we are most concerned with is maintaining our excellent customer service we are known for,” she said.

Joe Varner, who owns the Anna Maria Island Beach Resort and Anna Maria Vacations, both in Holmes Beach, was upbeat about the spring tourist season March 4, telling The Islander he expected 98% occupancy in April.

By March 18, Varner’s outlook had dimmed.

“I’ve lost a ton of bookings. But I’m afraid the solution will end up being far worse than the problem,” Varner said.

Traditionally, March and April are the busiest months for tourism, as well as tourist tax collections in the county.

In March 2019, $1,769,296.72 was collected on short-term rentals of 6 months or less.

April 2019 brought $2,644,057.95 into the coffers.

But with closures and cancellations, the 2020 numbers are likely to plummet.

Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the organization was relying on “best practices” and had suspended its advertising campaign.

“We have paused all of our marketing efforts with the exception of organic social media posts for information or uplifting content,” he said.

Falcione also said the BACVB, which operates as an agency of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council, must follow the advice of public health officials “and do our part to protect all members of the community.”

During a Manatee County news conference March 20, Falcione said, “We are taking this one day at a time. We are standing down until further notice.”